Respecting our past, shaping our future

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2020), News, Volume 28

The new Butler Gallery at the Evans’ Home, Kilkenny City.

 

By Evelyn Graham

Kilkenny County Council have a proud record of protecting their built heritage. The delivery of the Evans’ Home project in collaboration with the Butler Gallery will add yet another example of the adaptive reuse of a historic building with the added bonus of a major new public space. The historic urban centre of Kilkenny City retains much of its early fabric, which is a valuable economic and tourism resource. By preserving characteristic features of the city, Kilkenny County Council seek to maintain and nurture its environment and cultural heritage as part of its identity.

Evans’ Asylum/Home originated in a charitable bequest from Joseph Evans (d. 1818) and was built on the site of an infantry barracks and a former thirteenth-century Augustinian priory. The building as an architectural landmark is little known owing to its enclosed nature and sits on a site measuring 0.8 acres just off John’s Street, on the east side of the River Nore. Evans’ Home came into Council ownership in 1997 and various proposals for a new use were considered before agreement was reached in 2009 to develop it as the new Butler Gallery in partnership with Kilkenny local authorities. The development of a cultural quarter was prioritised as key to the economic and cultural development of Kilkenny City and County and received unanimous endorsement by Kilkenny County Council. The Butler Gallery is regarded as an integral part of that development. It was always important that the building be adapted for an appropriate use and in a sensitive manner. The works have transformed the existing building, its gardens and boundary walls into a destination for art, archaeology, history, education and leisure and will bring a very significant building in the city’s history back into public use.

The project obtained planning consent in January 2017 and construction commenced in June 2018. Kilkenny County Council and their team are justifiably proud of what has been achieved and we look forward to the opening of the completed Butler Gallery later this year. See butlergallery.com/evanshome/ for further information.

The project has been funded by Kilkenny County Council with support from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and Fáilte Ireland.

The Butler Gallery at Evans’ Home was designed by McCullough Mulvin Architects, Ireland’s foremost architects working to make a contemporary and culturally appropriate architecture of change to existing buildings. To take on new uses, beautiful old buildings have to give of themselves but somehow remain intact, their original character legible under the new one. That one sentence is characteristic of the whole idea of Kilkenny. The Evans Home, now the Butler Gallery, was an old almshouse standing in a walled garden—in one sense a typical green stony Irish place, a simple building which, on closer inspection, reveals a muted complexity typical of the city. Everything here was about continuities. The project became an essay in sustainability—in energy, but more particularly in its reuse of existing resources—and a form of cultural sustainability in agitating function in an old place, moving things on to make art space in a monastery garden.

Above: The old Evans’ Home in Kilkenny City, which has been refurbished and redesigned as the Butler Gallery. (Brian Cregan)

Making a place to exhibit art in architecture—one within or around the shell of the other—is a fluidly open process; to be successful, architects have to think like artists and be open to possibility. The architectural response encompassed—Russian doll-like—the interior, then the connection between inside and out, and the relationships between the almshouse and the walled garden. Spaces were excavated from cellular rooms in all three blocks, but not in a way that reflected the symmetry of the plan; the south wing became a double-height temporary gallery; two rooms were connected in the central block to form a café space; two rooms in the north block made an education space and lecture room. Secondary linkages were formed by opening walls on one or the other side of the chimney-breasts, creating new circulation routes within galleries.

The exterior is only slightly changed, but the gardens—a walled paradise where art could be displayed—were developed to become a series of discrete spaces made by vegetation and walks like the early formal garden in Rothe House across the river. The small, square rooms echo the forms and shapes of the garden enclosures: they are without hierarchy—a chessboard of possible art spaces, some enclosed, some in the open air. The garden offered an opportunity to explore the archaeology of the site, but also to open it up and link the Butler Gallery back to the river and the city.

 

Evelyn Graham is Project Liaison Architect with Kilkenny County Council.

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